Moises Chambi needs only two tools to survive on the world's largest salt flat: a wooden-handled pickax and a shovel beaten into a worn fold. The 23-year-old with sun-darkened skin, prominent cheekbones, and a quick, sarcastic smile grunts softly as he repeatedly slams his ax into the parched earth of Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni. As the sun sinks behind mountains floating over the unbroken white plain, he shovels gleaming chunks of salt into waist-high pyramids to dry.
His native Quechua tribe has used the same method for hundreds of years to eke out a living in a remote corner of South America's poorest nation. Campesinos bartered the salt they hauled out on llama caravans for cash, food, and water.
Chambi does the same today, but he uses a battered pickup truck instead of a llama to support his wife, 3-year-old son Michael, and baby Christian.
"I don't want my children to have this life," Chambi says, wiping his brow. "It's very hard on your lungs, on your kidneys to work like this every day. I want them to go to school. I want them to have a profession."
Now, for the first time in centuries, change could actually be on the way. Companies from around the world are jockeying for a piece of the untapped fortune beneath Chambi's feet.
Almost half the lithium in the world — 5.4 million tons of it, according to the U.S. Geological Survey — lies in the briny water that courses under Bolivia's salt flats. International speculators, from Mitsubishi to French industrialist Vincent Bolloré, believe lithium batteries will replace today's greenhouse-gas-emitting, enviroment-killing fossil fuels. They have set up shop in La Paz while investors in South Florida and New York closely monitor developments.
Earlier this month, Toyota introduced a lithium-powered car at the Detroit Auto Show. Everyone from Nissan to Ford to GM has models in the works, with local dealerships likely to begin selling some in the next year or two. U.S. taxpayers too have a major stake in lithium's success. One of the largest payouts from President Barack Obama's federal stimulus package — for $299 million — went to build America's first plant to churn out lithium-ion car batteries.
If Bolivia can fill the soon-to-skyrocket demand for lithium, South Florida in particular stands to benefit as the crossroads for Latin American commerce.
But corruption is rife in the landlocked nation, and leftist President Evo Morales is bent on consolidating state control. Some observers doubt that Bolivia will find a way to export its massive reserves to an energy-hungry world. Indigenous leaders have already made it clear that crippling protests might happen if foreign investors gain control over the lithium industry. And the technical challenges of getting the metal from the salt flats, which sit more than 12,000 feet above sea level in a sparsely populated wasteland, are mind-bending.
"These reserves are going to be a multibillion-dollar enterprise that could change the face of Bolivia as we embrace alternative fuels," says Bruce Bagley, an expert on Bolivia at the University of Miami. "But the country also has a long and well-earned history of resentment toward foreign investment. There are no sure bets there."
Adds Chambi: "The lithium could change our lives, sure. But nothing the [village leaders have] done has ever helped us before. Why should we trust in this?"
A sleek, dark-green Subaru Impreza has been gutted except for a blue roll-cage wedged in front. It is perched on blocks inside a neat garage in an industrial park near the Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport.
When the car is reassembled, every spare inch will be packed with 96 lithium batteries in cooling racks that look like computer servers.
The empty frame might not look like much at the moment. But just a few years ago, Cliff Rassweiler, a mid-40s, rail-thin speed racer with Clint Eastwood's deep cheek wrinkles and a competitor's gleam in his eyes, made semipro racing history in the car.
Today, he's certain lithium-battery-powered vehicles like his prototype won't be just a historical footnote. "Eventually, we'll all be racing electric cars because we'll all be driving electric cars," Rassweiler says. "It's not going to happen quickly, but yeah, it's already happening."
The story of Rassweiler's astoundingly successful quest in suburban Miami to make a lithium-battery electric racer — with minimal technical support — shows just how much potential the technology has to revolutionize the automotive industry.
In 2000, he and a partner, a wiry, affable race-car company owner named James Lee, quit a decade of pro racing to take up a new challenge: becoming the first team to win a sanctioned race in an electric-powered car.
The first problem: After cracking open the history books, they realized it was done a century ago. "That was a bit of a shock," Rassweiler says, laughing.